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More than Sherlock: Detectives in 'The Dead Witness'

December 16, 2011 | 12:35 pm

Dead-witness-coverIf you're a fan of the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, you may or may not realize: You're barely scratching the surface of Victorian detective fiction. After you return home this weekend from watching director Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," you might consider the fine group of sleuths assembled by editor Michael Sims in "The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories".

The author, most recently, of "The Story of Charlotte's Web," Sims includes a sordid account of kidnapping by William E. Burton along with the early reports of Jack the Ripper. He also introduces readers to the impressive skills of several sleuths who live far from Baker Street, including November Joe and Violet Strange.

Jacket Copy caught up with Sims to ask him how he selected the material for this volume and why these selections are not only elementary, my dear Watson, but also essential.

Jacket Copy: The book’s subtitle refers to this as “a connoisseur’s collection.”  How is this book different from other collections of Victorian-era stories of detection?

Michael Sims: For decades I dreamed about editing the ideal anthology: a carefully chosen mix of representative stories that includes forgotten works by big-name authors and lost gems by forgotten authors, an introduction that places the genre and authors in literary and historical context, an introduction to each story that goes beyond a brief note cobbled from Wikipedia entries and includes some of the literary anecdotes my disheveled magpie brain has hoarded over the years, everything in chronological order to show the genre's growth, and a hefty number of handsome pages but not too heavy to read in bed.

So I designed my Connoisseur's Collection series for Walker and Bloomsbury (the first volume was "Dracula's Guest," about vampires, and the third volume will be "The Phantom Coach," about ghosts) to expressly avoid the slips in these categories that I have found disappointing in some other anthologies.

JC: Crimes are puzzles, and the popularity of crime stories and thrillers has to do with the fact that just about everyone loves a good puzzle. Are there certain principles or elements that the mysteries in your book have in common?

MS: I hope readers won't be able to find much in common between these stories except puzzles. I deliberately chose as wide a variety as I could, including short stories, a French novella, two novel excerpts, the first reprint of a story pre-dating Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens' magazine profile of a London detective's midnight rounds, and the first newspaper story about Jack the Ripper and the inquest transcript. I want to keep the reader surprised not just by the wonderful stories themselves but by what you find when you turn to the next one. But the puzzles are there. These are definitely detective stories, not just crime stories. In most the narrative follows the unraveling of a crime by an interesting detective, from an Englishwoman who was the first female private eye to a First Nations backwoods tracker in Canada. But one thing they have in common is a commitment to reason and evidence, not hearsay and torture.

JC: You mention in the introduction that part of the appeal of 19thcentury detective stories is the comforting sense of “cause and effect” that the sleuths find in a chaotic world.  That also seems true of all the "CSI"-like, forensic mysteries today. Are the stories in your book kin to these technology-heavy mysteries, or do they operate in a wholly different universe?

MS: Excellent question. I think the illusion that "CSI"-type programs give, which is that they are based upon reality (often wildly untrue), was an illusion that some Victorian stories tried to create with official-sounding narratives, more realistic crimes and detectives, and glimpses of police routine. So the roots of "Law & Order" are definitely here in this collection.

But these stories are not technology heavy, because the 19th century comprises the era in which technology gradually began to contribute more and more to real-life (hence also to fictional) crime-solving: the microscope, laboratory analysis, fingerprints. Although I do include the very first fictional use of fingerprints in crime-solving, by a gentleman named Mark Twain.

 

RELATED:

Movie review: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

From The Siren's Call: A review of Michael Dirda's "On Conan Doyle"

 --Nick Owchar

Photo: Book cover of "The Dead Witness."  Credit: Walker & Co.

 

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